Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 31, 2012

Editorial: Station brought Cold War north


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---- — Other than during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962, the Cold War was, for most Americans, downright frigid. The Soviet Union seemed a long way away and while Americans were well aware of the threat of nuclear war, for most people it didn't seem like a real war.

In tiny Empire, however, the Cold War was anything but cold. It was the focus of everyday business and never far from the minds of young Air Force personnel who manned the top secret radar installation built there in 1950.

Sites like the Empire station were part of a radar picket system — one of many — designed to give the military an early warning of Russian ICBMs heading over the Arctic to strike American cities. The station provided communication signals and directions during test missions.

The need for the facility waned as the Cold War cooled, but the competition to create better equipment led to "state-of-the-art" technology, according to Harry Elletson, who served at the base from 1958 to 1960 as an Air Force dentist and who is helping to plan a reunion set for Sept. 19-23.

The impact of the base and the presence of all those young Air Force guys from all over the country had a profound effect on Empire. But Empire had a profound effect on them, too.

Elletson is among the estimated 200 or more Air Force men who married local women; his wife is from Kingsley. They now have a home on Spider Lake and spend winters in Arizona. The group gathers regularly for reunions, he said, and to reminisce about their time in the tiny town and fun nights out in Traverse City's dance halls.

The presence of the base, and what it meant, wasn't lost on anyone.

"When we were kids we thought ... this was the first base that they'll bomb," recalled Dave Taghon, who as a boy lived on Front Street in Empire. "It was a reality. You could see it every day."

The site, on a hill high above Empire, included dormitories, towers, officer quarters and even a two-lane bowling alley where they also showed movies. The base also had access to Glen Lake, where airmen could swim and go water skiing.

"It was like a country club," said Otto Belovich, who worked in the communications center during his stint at the station from 1963 to 1965.

Belovich married a local woman and made his home in northern Michigan. He now owns auto dealerships in Traverse City and hopes to attend the reunion.

"We all have something in common," he said.